G. O. Jones

Physicist at Queen Mary College, London, who became Director of the National Museum of Wales

Gwyn Owain Jones, physicist and museum administrator: born Cardiff 29 March 1917; Glass Delegacy Research Fellow, Sheffield University 1939-41; Nuffield Foundation Research Fellow at Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University 1946-49; Reader in Experimental Physics, London University 1949-53, Professor of Physics 1953-68; Head of Department of Physics, Queen Mary College 1953-68; Director, National Museum of Wales 1968-77; CBE 1978; Chairman, Welsh Academy 1978-81; married 1944 Sheila Heywood (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1973 Elizabeth Blandino; died Oxford 3 July 2006.

Having built, from modest beginnings, a thriving physics research and teaching department at Queen Mary College, London University, G. O. Jones then switched career horses to serve, from 1968 to 1977, as Director of the National Museum of Wales. In the meantime he published three novels.

During the Second World War he was a member of the Government's atomic energy project. In 1946 he was appointed a Nuffield Foundation Research Fellow at the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford, working on the physics of glasses. He later published a comprehensive text on the subject, Glass (1956), the same year that Atoms and the Universe, his collaboration with Joseph Rotblat and G.J. Whitrow, appeared.

In 1949 he was attracted by an opportunity to found and lead a new school of condensed-state physics at Queen Mary College. This small college was re-forming in its bomb-damaged Victorian buildings in the Mile End Road in east London after a wartime sojourn in Cambridge. He joined as Reader in Experimental Physics, and soon after was appointed to the chair of Physics and to the headship of the then small Physics department. In the following two decades he built up a substantial department engaged in research at the forefront of each major field of physics.

On arrival at QMC he began experimental studies of the remarkable behaviours exhibited by condensed matter at temperatures within a degree or two of the absolute zero of temperature, in particular the phenomenon of superconductivity. These peculiar behaviours would eventually be recognised as characteristically quantum phenomena extending over macroscopic scales, but at that time they challenged our understanding of the nature of matter in the condensed state.

To embark on such studies in the QMC context required that he exercise considerable technical ingenuity. The few laboratories around the world at which experiments at such low temperatures could at that time be made were all well endowed, each being based on a large central helium liquefier from which litres of liquid helium, at four degrees above absolute zero, would be decanted into cryostat vessels and transferred to separate pieces of apparatus in which experiments were to be conducted.

At QMC, Jones adopted a very different approach. He designed and proved a miniaturised helium liquefier which would support the work of a single researcher. In a few hours such a refrigerator would produce little more than 0.1 litres or so of liquid helium but that would suffice for an experiment conducted in situ that would last a few hours more. Relatively small input quantities of high-pressure hydrogen and helium gases were required for this. His first miniature liquefier was operating within a year of his arrival at QMC, and measurements of the superconducting transition temperatures of metals at pressures up to several kilobars had begun.

This approach to experimentation at very low temperatures had the advantage that, by adding further miniature liquefiers one by one (a dozen or so by 1955) he was able to build up a productive low-temperature physics department in a remarkably short time and for remarkably little expenditure. In 1962 the Eighth International Conference on Low Temperature Physics met at Queen Mary under G.O. Jones's chairmanship in the fine new physics building.

He had also initiated the development of techniques of spectroscopy at extreme infra-red wavelengths shortwards of one millimetre on the grounds that photons in this spectral range have quantum energies corresponding to the transition temperatures of the classical superconducting metals. Only primitive measurement techniques for this spectral range were known at that time and he encouraged colleagues to develop cryogenic detectors, both coherent and incoherent, and interferometric auto-correlation spectrum analysers. These were applied, at QMC and later also elsewhere, in many studies of collective-excitations in crystalline solids and in remote sensing of the Earth's atmosphere.

At the same time he began, with colleagues, to make observations of the Sun, Moon and planets using these same extreme infra-red techniques mounted on the roof of the department and at mountain-tops over Europe. These observations proved to be first steps in what has become a major branch of astronomy, galactic and extragalactic.

Jones exercised great care in making appointments to academic posts, and was continually alert to opportunities for extending the department's range. In the 1950s the customary first step in an academic career was a fixed-term assistant-lectureship and this served to identify those with the imagination and determination he required. Undergraduate teaching was equally at the centre of his interests and he expected full participation from each member of his staff. The number of permanent academic staff rose from about eight to 26 and the annual intake of undergraduates rose correspondingly beyond 70. The Physics department was then the largest academic department in Queen Mary College and was showing the way for the college's subsequent great expansion.

In all of this "G.O." was perceptive, thoughtful, considerate, and measured in his judgements. He was respected and held in regard by his academic colleagues. But in 1968 he resigned from his position in QMC to become Director of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. To many who knew of his work and achievements at QMC this was a great surprise. He had, however, already begun to express a wider span of his talents and insights. His contribution to the design of the new physics building had gone well beyond a concern with its functional efficiency. With help from staff of the Whitechapel Art Gallery (especially the potter Betty Blandino, whom he later married), he had arranged for painters to exhibit their work in a light and well-proportioned room at the heart of the physics building, and he opened this to the public as Gallery 273.

And he had, by now, published three novels, The Catalyst (1960), Personal File (1962) and Now (1965).

Derek Martin

G. O. Jones once referred to physics as "an honest subject, worthy of devotion", but gave it up because he thought it was "a young man's game", writes Meic Stephens. He believed that, as head of department, he was in danger of becoming remote from his subject. The relief of changing his career by choice, he once told me, had been enormous. He nevertheless continued to describe himself as "an unashamed scientific idealist, one of the last of the Wellsians".

First discovering the novels of H.G. Wells while at Monmouth School (though not liking Aldous Huxley), he found a directness and warmth in Wells's "simply passionate, hopeful voice", which he relished for the rest of his life. On one occasion, when I took a group of Soviet writers for tea at his home near St Briavels in the Wye Valley, he thought it imprudent to talk about his work as a physicist but was unusually expansive on finding that his guests shared his enthusiasm for Wells.

The first three of his own novels were published by Faber & Faber: The Catalyst, Personal File and Now; his semi-autobiographical sequence of stories The Conjuring Show appeared in 1981, and a last novel, A Close Family, in 1998. The novels, which are short and rather dry, are about boffins, civil servants and politicians, for the most part trapped in their jobs and struggling to find meaning to their lives, while the stories recount his boyhood in South Wales.

The son of an acerbic and much-feared member of HM Inspectorate of Schools, Gwyn Owain Jones was born in Cardiff but brought up in the seaside resort of Porthcawl. The Welsh-speaking home was full of books, but not the kind he wanted to read; he soon rebelled against the expectation that he would study literature and he never showed an interest in the Welsh language, of which he had only a smattering.

His father withdrew him from Port Talbot Grammar School, and sent him to Monmouth School, where he was unhappy. A puny boy, he did not excel at games but was plucky enough to stand up to bullies and the heartier of the masters, and was allowed to play the school organ. Here, at the age of 14, Jones declared himself an atheist, much to the chagrin of his parents. On discovering that the school did not set great store on academic achievement his father whisked him back to Port Talbot, just in time for him to win the Meyricke Scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, where he studied Physics with an outstanding teacher, Claude Hurst.

His nine years as Director of the National Museum of Wales were uneventful. He was a diligent enough administrator but cast a cold eye on the institution that enabled him to return to the land of his birth. He took more pleasure in his chairmanship of the Welsh Academy.

He was appointed CBE in 1978, and, with his second wife, went to live in Summertown, Oxford. A dictionary of nonsense words on which he had been working for several years remained unpublished at his death.

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